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Abbot Peter NovokoskyFlying with the pope

Prairie Messenger readers likely won’t ever get to ride on a plane with Pope Francis during one of his papal visits.

As I write, Pope Francis is making his long-anticipated visit to Africa. Unlike the mythical Christmas trip of Santa Claus, real people are on the plane and his stop in conflict-torn Central African Republic is much more dangerous than sliding down the mythical chimney.

What does a trip on a papal plane look like? Veteran Vatican commentator John Allen Jr. recently shared his experiences on his Crux blog.

The pope travels with an entourage of about 30 people and 70 reporters. The papal party is typically composed of the cardinal secretary of state; one or two other cardinals and bishops; 10 priests, most of them officials of the secretariat of state; and 20 laity, most employees of the Vatican Press Office as well as plainclothes agents of the Vatican security service and the Swiss Guard.

The pope takes the Italian national airline, Alitalia, to wherever he’s going, and then flies the national carrier of that country on his return. The papal plane is a normal commercial jet; usually the only real perk enjoyed by the pope is that he gets to sit in the first row of business class by himself.

The first pope to fly was Pope Paul VI, who flew to Jordan and Israel in January 1964. In 1965 he visited New York and gave his famous speech at the United Nations, before returning to Rome for the closing session of the Second Vatican Council.

In the early years of his papacy, St. John Paul II would come back to the economy section and talk to reporters in language groups, Allen writes. “It was all off-the-cuff, and all on-the-record.”

Pope Benedict XVI would conduct a sort-of press conference at the beginning of the trip. They were highly choreographed affairs, with the Vatican spokesperson collecting questions and picking a few to ask the pontiff.

Pope Francis has changed the style to moving around the plane to say hello to reporters on the outbound leg of the flight, then holding a full-blown, no-holds-barred news conference on the way back.

For reporters, Allen writes, the best moments on long flights often come “when members of the entourage come to the back of the plane to use the bathroom, and can be pulled aside to take a question, provide background on something, or simply offer some insight into what the pope’s doing up front.”

Fifty years ago Alitalia would treat reporters with bottles of wine and perfume, cartons of cigarettes, boxes of chocolate, and so on. Now it only provides a cloth headrest with the papal seal that most reporters snag as they disembark.

For reporters, it’s a privilege — and includes many hours of hard work.